Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Value of History

During the final three months of 1873, Fritz suffered from acute, nauseating headaches. He spent one day out of every three in bed, with the curtains drawn, unable work, teach, read by lamplight, and often unable to write at all. Yet with the assistance of friends he was able to conceive of and largely dictate a new essay which went beyond anything he had written or lectured on to date. The result was "History in the Service and Disservice of Life", a work which contained the embryonic elements of most of his future philosophical system.

He began by proclaiming the fundamental importance of studying history – but only in the context of what it can do for culture in the present. “…we need history, but not in the way the pampered dilettante in the garden of knowledge, for all his elegant contempt for our coarse and graceless needs and wants, needs it. I mean, we need history for life and action, not for the smug evasion of life and action, or even to gloss a selfish life and a base, cowardly action. Only insofar as history serves life do we wish to serve history.” (Forward)

Once again, this was all a matter of culture, yet at a deeply personal level. “…the great moments in the struggle of individuals form a chain; that in them a great mountain ridge of mankind takes shape through the millennia; that the peaks of such long-lost moments might be still alive, still luminous, still great, for me – that is the crucial idea in the belief in humanity which the demand for exemplary history expresses.” (section 2, the emphasis throughout all these quotes is Nietzsche’s. He began to underline his words for special accentuation.)

Nietzsche decreed that there were three ways of viewing history. “Monumental” history recognized the “heroic” deeds and persons of the past. “Antiquarian” history was appreciative, directed toward the revering and preserving tradition. “Critical” history served to define obsolete aspects of the past and discarding them.
Each of the three possessed their limitations. The monumental approach could obstruct the birth of present greatness. The antiquarian could stagnate life through the encouragement of living in the past. With the critical, Nietzsche’s favored approach, there was a danger of not realizing the extent to which the present is influenced by the past.

Ideally, cultures find a balance between understanding the past and using that understanding to enrich and elevate the present. “Every man, every nation, requires according to its goals, strengths, and necessities, a certain knowledge of the past, a knowledge now in the form of exemplary history, now of antiquarian history, and now of critical history. What is never needed is a crowd of pure thinkers merely observing life, or individuals hungry for knowledge who are satisfied by knowledge only, whose sole purpose is the increase of knowledge. What is always needed is history whose aim is life and which must therefore be subject to the authority and ultimate control of life.” (4)

History is clearly meant to serve the present not to simply be known and appreciated for what it was. “In order to live, man must possess the strength, and occasionally employ it, to shatter and disintegrate a past. He does this by haling the past before a tribunal, interrogating it carefully, and in the end condemning it.” (3)

Once again, Nietzsche is rather elitist about history’s usefulness to “great” persons forging a present cultural value. “Only from the highest power of the present can you interpret the past. Only by the most vigorous exertion of your noblest qualities will you sense what in the past is great and worth knowing and preserving. The past always speaks with an oracular voice. Only as master builders of the future, who understand the present, will you comprehend it.” (6)

Yet, contemporary society doesn’t measure up; it fails to appreciate history properly. “Overproud European of the nineteenth century, you are raving mad! Your knowledge does not fulfill nature; it merely kills your own nature. Assess your height as a man of knowledge by your depth as a man of action. True, you climb toward heaven on the sunlight of knowledge, but you also sink downwards towards chaos.” (9)

Also in section 9 Nietzsche makes this statement: “ ' The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end [Ende] but only in its highest specimens’. Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence. Here is the most crucial point of his philosophy and theory of values – no less than the clue to his ‘aristocratic’ ethics and his opposition to socialism and democracy.” (Kaufmann, p. 149)

Nietzsche makes an interesting comparison between “Becoming” (which is the action of history itself) and “Being” (which is the act of living in the Now). He encourages us to direct ourselves toward Being by finding a balance between the “unhistorical” and the “supra-historical”. “By the term unhistorical I mean man’s skill and power to forget, his ability to seclude himself within a limited horizon. By supra-historical I mean those forces which direct our eyes away from Becoming and toward that which gives existence its eternal and unchanging character, toward art and religion. Scientific scholarship – for it is this that would speak of poisons – sees in these forces and powers forces antagonistic to its own since, according to it, only that view of things is true and genuine, that is, scientific, which everywhere observes the Becoming, the historical element, always ignoring the Being element of the eternal.” (10)

A proper use of history would be to cleanse culture of such confusion. “A hygiene of life has its own place at the side of science, and one of the principles of this hygiene would be that the unhistorical and the supra-historical are the natural antidotes to the suffocation of life by history, by historical sickness.” (10)

But, ultimately, the higher culture must come from the struggle toward something new, not old, not traditional. “Each of us must organize his own inward chaos by concentrating on his own true needs. At some point his sincerity, na├»ve strength, and honesty of character must rebel against constant imitation – against imitated speech, imitated learning, imitated behavior. It is then that he begins to grasp the fact that culture can still be something very different from adornment of life – that is, nothing but a sham and disguise, since all ornaments conceal the thing they adorn. In this way the Greek concept of culture – in contrast to the Roman – will be revealed to him, the concept of culture as a new and improved physis, unified, without the gulf between interior and exterior, without dissimulation and convention; of culture as harmony of life, thought, appearance, and will.” (10)

Hollingdale finds traces of most of Nietzsche’s mature writings in this important essay: “Yet the cardinal concepts of his mature philosophy are already present in the Meditation on history, even if they are still unrelated” the concept ‘organizing the chaos’ leads to the chapter ‘Of Self-Overcoming’ in Zarathustra, in which the will to power is first described; the idea that ‘the goal of humanity cannot lie in its end but only in its highest specimens’ leads to the Ubermensch, the man who has organized the chaos within him; the outlook of the supra-historical man leads to the eternal recurrence. He has also been brought up more sharply than before against his typical problem of the ‘true but deadly’. Darwinism is true but represents a calamity; the teaching that reality is ‘becoming’ and never is, is also true, but likewise a calamity. Neither can be denied: ultimately both will be surmounted.” (page 102)

At this point in his philosophical life, Nietzsche seems to have been concerned with the fundamentals of cultural mediocrity and decay. Having already attacked “philistine” education and “journalism” as harmful influences, with this essay he added “historical sickness” to the pathology of cultural decay. Ancient Greek culture remained his guiding light and the standard by which he made comparison.

Safranski: “Nietzsche kept returning to his central idea of how knowledge of and belief in the power of the past had worked to the detriment of vitality. He reminded us that the Greeks were exposed to the chaos of history; Semitic, Babylonian, Lydian, and Egyptian cultures and traditions made inroads into Greek traditions, and the Greek religion was a ‘veritable battle of the gods throughout the East’. All the more remarkable is the vigor with which Greek culture learned ‘to organize the chaos’ and achieve its true richness. Greek culture succeeded in forming a spacious, yet delimited, horizon. The Greeks described a circle that life could fulfill and in which it could fulfill itself.” (page 124)

Obviously, it was not Nietzsche’s intent, however, to apply the details of ancient Greece in the contemporary setting, but only to use them as a conceptual inspiration for forging a new society which (as he wrote closing the essay) “…may hasten the collapse of an entire decorative culture.” (10)


"In all its phases, Nietzsche's philosophy attaches extreme importance to the exceptional individual, refrred to, at different times, as 'the genius', 'the free spirit', 'the higher type', 'the philosopher of the future', and 'the superman'. Nietzsche says that talk of the subordination of the individual to 'the wellbeing of the whole' is oftern misunderstood: it should be subordination not to the state or to powerful individuals but to the highest individual, the 'highest exemplar'; not to the 'strongest' but to the 'best'." (Young, page 179)

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